Hayter column: Amid the doom and gloom, let’s savour the feeling of the new season

By Peter Hayter

All cricket lovers here know the feeling and look forward to it with heart-fluttering anticipation, and it is not that far away now.

Spring, when hope of the summer to come pushes through the greyness of winter, bringing with it the sound of the mower, the smell of freshly cut grass and the feel of a brand new blade; the season to live for and to die for.

For those blessed with the chance of playing or having any involvement in village, school or club cricket, the promise of experiencing those sensations remains tantalisingly available.

But for some of those who love and those who play county cricket, recent events and the suggestion of massive upheavals they will bring with them might encourage thoughts of committing to an indefinite period of hibernation.

The news that England’s Adil Rashid and Alex Hales have decided they no longer wish to play the red-ball game should not in itself come as a shock.

Jos Buttler, who speculated whether the seemingly unstoppable rise of T20 meant cricket could become a one-format game in the not too distant future, hardly plays any either.

Eoin Morgan, England’s white-ball captain, hasn’t played a first-class game for almost three years, though now he’s been overlooked for the upcoming Indian Premier League season he suddenly finds himself drawn to playing for Middlesex again.

Rashid’s boss at Yorkshire, director of cricket Martyn Moxon, speaking on talkSPORT radio this week, expressed his disappointment that the leg-spinner had chosen this path.

However, referring to the fact that the untested Mason Crane was preferred to Rashid for the Ashes trip, he admitted: “Part of me can understand why he made this decision,” and he also revealed his club are already making plans for when David Willey or Liam Plunkett decide they no longer want to be considered for red-ball cricket, not if.

All of which makes it sound like the problem for Championship cricket is not that people don’t want to watch it, but that fewer and fewer people actually want to play it.

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that powerful voices within the game (including Moxon’s) have proposed radical change, namely that, from 2020, the year when the new franchise–based T20 extravaganza will come to save us all, the present two-division championship should be redrawn into three conferences, A, B, C which would then feed into three further mini-conferences, D, E and F.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Three conferences. Now where have I heard that before?

About a thousand times, actually, once as far back as the mid-Nineties when Sir Ian MacLaurin, then chairman of the ECB, who, stressing that no change from the existing single division championship was not an option, put it on his original agenda for his plan: “Raising The Standard”.

“It’s very simple,” MacLaurin explained to a bemused Richie Benaud, “my 12-year old grandson understands it. “

“Well,” said Benaud, “he must be more clever than me then.”

Ultimately, that idea seemed to terrify the county chairman so that they voted for the present two-division structure instead, presumably on the basis that at least this one did not require a degree in applied mathematics to fathom it out.

But never before, nor since, has it been proposed in the form devised in 2003 by Mike Atherton, Michael Parkinson, Bob Willis and his brother David and Nigel Wray, also known as The Cricket Reform Group, who produced something called “Making English Cricket Great – For Everyone. A Manifesto for change.”

Leaving aside the cheap shot that this must have been where Donald Trump got his campaign slogan from, closer inspection of the document shows that it proposed the formation of 18 new cricket associations, with Minor Counties being absorbed by the first–class county clubs.

Five of those would have remained intact and in splendid isolation, Kent, Sussex, Warwickshire, Yorkshire and, for some reason left unexplained, Leicestershire.

The others would share billing, resources and rewards with their geographical neighbours and poor relations.

Thus would be formed, for instance Cambridgeshire, ESSEX, Norfolk and Suffolk; Cumberland, DURHAM and Northumberland, and Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and NORTHAMPTONSHIRE (their capital letters, not mine).

From these there would emerge, on merit, three divisions of six clubs – The Premiership, to bridge the gap between county and Test cricket, The North and The South, with each county playing ten matches with the winners of the North and South groups playing off to join the Prem. There would also be two 50-over competitions and a two division T20 league.

I could go on, and they did, on and on, because the main driver for change, according to The Cricket Reform Group, was that “not since the 1950s could England say unequivocally that they had the best team in the world…. We have been underachieving for decades and… The England team is the shop window of our game and consistent underachievement will affect sponsorship and television revenues and the general appeal of cricket.”

Irritatingly for the CRG, the publication of the document coincided with the start of a period in which England won seven of the next eight series they played, culminating in the 2005 Ashes which ended with that pesky Michael Vaughan holding the urn aloft at the Oval watched by millions on terrestrial TV, before he and his team set off next day on their open-topped bus ride to Trafalgar Square.

That’s not to say their ideas weren’t valid and reasonable.

Many of them made perfect sense and those who need to come up with real answers to real questions facing the game have a huge task in front of them.

But maybe amid the rising panic, doom and gloom, the rush to find some magic solution to all the confusion and the headlong charge to a future where T20 is not merely the biggest game in town but the only one, our best chance is to reconnect with those feelings that have always sustained genuine cricket lovers here.

Spring, when hope of the summer to come pushes through the grey fog of winter, bringing with it the sound of the mower, the smell of freshly cut grass and the feel of a brand new blade.

It is still the season to live for and to die for.

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